A troubled Lanarkshire college again came under scrutiny at the Scottish Parliament yesterday, with calls for a “light to be shone” on “serious issues” and whistleblowers’ claims of “bullying, intimidation, harassment, theft and fraud”.
At First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood, Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson asked Nicola Sturgeon to order an investigation into concerns about the running of South Lanarkshire College (SLC), as an independent audit revealed students’ ‘outcomes’ and the delivery of high quality learning to be in jeopardy as a result of operational shortcomings at board level.
Telling the chamber that auditors could not conclude that governance at SLC was satisfactory over the last year, the Conservative MSP aired suspicions that principal Aileen McKechnie – who was dramatically suspended more than four months ago, along with interim clerk to the board, Brian Keenan – had been “ruffling feathers” when she called in external forensic investigators to probe concerns about alleged misconduct within the institution’s ranks.
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“There are serious issues at this college,” said Graham Simpson.
“Whistleblowers have made a number of allegations, with reported claims of fraud, theft and general malfeasance.
“The college has now published an action plan that says procedures should be changed in areas such as procurement, preventing bribery, and carrying out supplier due diligence. A light has to be shone on what has been happening at this college.”
In her response, the First Minister said the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is able to launch a further inquiry or investigation if it considers it appropriate.
She added: “I am happy to consider whether there is any other further action or procedure the Scottish Government can initiate.”
Described by Gillian Mackay MSP as “cause for alarm,” the Auditor General for Scotland’s audit of SLC, published today, cites a catalog of instances in which the college’s board breached the Code of Good Governance for Scotland’s Colleges.
“The governance issues highlighted by Audit Scotland are cause for alarm,” said Green MSP, Gillian Mackay, who brought widespread unease over the running of the college to the attention of the Scottish Parliament last month.
“I have previously highlighted concerns around the impact these issues may have on staff and students at the college and I intend to raise the matter again in light of this concerning audit report.”
Mackay’s comments echo those of Auditor General for Scotland, Stephen Boyle, who expressed concern at the issues raised in the report.
He stated: “These governance issues risk preventing scrutiny of how SLC operates on behalf of its students, staff and the wider community.”
The latest concerns over governance at SLC, which declares itself to be “one of Scotland’s top performing colleges,” follow the suspension four months ago of McKechnie and Keegan.
Last September, three months prior to her suspension, Lanarkshire Live revealed that Ms McKechnie – who took up the post in April 2020 following the retirement after 18 years’ service of principal Stewart McKillop – had called an investigation into alleged misconduct.
When pressed by Lanarkshire Live at that time, college chiefs refused to provide information about the nature of the concerns that prompted the investigation and its cost, or to reveal how many resulting recommendations were made.
McKenchie and Keegan were “temporarily removed from their positions” in December amid allegations of “bullying, harassment, breaches of governance and behavior and conduct,” which sources claim were leveled at the board – and not at the executives who were suspended.
Immediately following the suspensions of the pair, the college’s Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) members overwhelmingly backed a vote of no confidence in the board’s chairman, Andy Kerr.
In a highly unusual move, members also voted overwhelmingly in favor of supporting suspended principal, Aileen McKechnie, in her endeavors to ensure transparency within the college.
Malaise at the institution continued last month, when we again revealed the contents of a letter sent by a whistleblower to SLC and five other public bodies containing stinging allegations and claims of “bullying, intimidation, harassment, theft and fraud over many years” within its ranks.
Sent to SLC, New College Lanarkshire, the Scottish Funding Council, the Scottish Government, Audit Scotland and Investors in People, the letter’s author – a former college employee – tells recipients he has chosen to remain anonymous “due to a fear of retaliation”.
A copy of the three-page letter was passed exclusively to Lanarkshire Live and we have knowledge of the author’s identity.
Since we published the damning claims, four other whistle-blowers have come forward to Lanarkshire Live with corroborating accounts of “cronyism” and a “culture of fear and bullying” at the East Kilbride college.
With the publication today of the Auditor General for Scotland report, under the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000, parliamentary attention has turned once more on the troubled educational institution.
The report highlights 10 events between August 1 2021 and March 24 this year in which SLC failed to comply with the Code of Good Governance, which sets a benchmark for all college boards across the areas of leadership and strategy, quality of the student experience, accountability , effectiveness and relationship, and collaboration.
They include the board and the audit and risk committee failing to meet for up to six months, membership of both falling below the required numbers, lack of transparency of board and committee papers, and the appointment of new board members three months prior to receiving them. an induction.
With today’s report stating that auditors are “unable to conclude that governance at SLC was satisfactory over the last year,” the findings must come as a blow to the college, which had said previously that the decision to suspend McKechnie and Keegan was taken to provide “ongoing good governance and sound leadership at the college” and “positive outcomes for students”.
As two independent investigations commissioned by the board into complaints and grievances against the chair of the board, interim clerk to the board, and the principal were ongoing, the board’s chairman, Andy Kerr, voluntarily stepped aside from his post.
After more than four months, the pair remain suspended, with deputy principal Liz McIntyre continuing to oversee college operations. The college has refused to release the report that preceded events leading to the suspension of McKechnie and Keegan.
Referring to this investigation and previous alleged complaints from within the college, the whistleblower’s letter states: “No public statement has been made about any real action taken to deal with the complaints; no sign of any police or other involvement; no sign of any action.” taken against senior staff.”
The letter, which gives accounts of alleged cronyism at the college, also states: “For too long, the toxic culture at SLC has been allowed to continue unabated.
“There was some hope with the introduction of the new principal and the culture changes she tried to implement. That hope has now been extinguished.
“This college will go to the dogs if proper processes are not introduced to protect staff, to protect students, to protect public funds – and maintained in what is a public body and a charity.”
In recent weeks, a further four individuals have come forward to Lanarkshire Live with allegations of bullying and cronyism at the college, similar to those contained within the whistle-blower’s letter and verbal accounts he has given to Lanarkshire Live.
Commenting on the audit report’s findings, Paul Hutchinson, acting chair to the board of management at SLC, said: “We are aware of the Section 22 Audit Report raised by the auditor general in relation to Corporate Governance at the college.
“The Governance Improvement Plan developed by the college is an important step forward in addressing the concerns raised within the Section 22 Report.
“The board and senior management team jointly own the plan and will work together to ensure it is delivered. Continuous monitoring of the plan will be conducted by the audit and risk committee.
“In addition, governance will be subject to review as part of the college’s agreed internal audit plan.
“Many of these actions have already been progressed and we will continue to work with senior staff and key public bodies to progress any outstanding actions for improvement.
“The focus of the board remains on providing a high-quality learning experience for its students and meeting the needs of the communities which it serves.”
Describing the college’s improvement plan as “an important step forward,” Auditor General Stephen Boyle said: “It is essential that the board and senior management team now take ownership of the plan and work together to ensure it is delivered.”
A spokesperson for the SFC commented: “The SFC was alerted to potential issues at SLC last year and, as a result, instigated an independent review of governance. The review resulted in the college developing and implementing an improvement plan.
“We are engaging with the Regional Strategic Body (RSB) to ensure the recommendations are being fully implemented and that effective arrangements are in place to ensure that students continue to have a good, productive learning experience. “
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